Eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” but that’s a bit misleading. Eudaimonia comes from two Greek words:
Daimon: soul or “self.” A difficult word to translate into English.
In Greek philosophy, Eudaimonia means achieving the best conditions possible for a human being, in every sense–not only happiness, but also virtue, morality, and a meaningful life. It was the ultimate goal of philosophy: to become better people—to fulfill our unique potential as human beings. Aristotle wrote about the idea the most, and it was important to many Greek philosophers, from Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, through to Stoicism, a late-Greek philosophy.
You can achieve Eudaimonia, Aristotle argued, by working hard, cultivating your virtues, and excelling at whatever tasks nature and circumstances come to you. However, Aristotle also wrote that living in the right kind of place and balancing your activities with wisdom are essential to achieving Eudaimonia as well.
If you’re a parent, you should excel at raising your children; if you’re a doctor, you should excel at healing people; and if you’re a philosopher, you should excel at gaining knowledge and wisdom, and teaching. Of course, each person plays many roles life, and it’s by excelling in all of them that one achieves Eudaimonia.
Aristotle argued that, in addition to our specific roles (parent, doctor, philosopher), all human beings share a purpose — one thing we all do that makes us human. In order to achieve true Eudaimonia, you have to excel at this as well — being a moral person, controlling your emotions, and exercising reason. Because, Aristotle argued, these are the most advanced and uniquely human abilities.
So, instead of happiness, Eudaimonia could be translated as: fulfillment, living a good (moral) life, human flourishing, and moral or spiritual success.
II. Eudaimonia vs. Happiness
In translations of Greek works, the word “Eudaimonia” is usually translated as “happiness.” However, as the previous section explains, there’s a lot more to this concept than happiness.
The English word “happy” has an interesting origin, very different from the origins of Eudaimonia. “Happy” comes from the Norse word happ, which means fortune or luck. It’s connected with:
- I just happened to see him.
All of these words have to do with random occurrences / fortune / luck. Essentially “happiness” originally meant something like “fortunate.” But Eudaimonia has little to do with luck. Whether you have great luck or terrible luck, Eudaimonia works the same way: you have to work hard at becoming a better person and excelling in your day-to-day activities. Luck may decide what your job is, what problems come your way, or where you live, but according to Greek philosophy, luck has nothing to do with being the best human being you can be.
Moreover, “happiness” is an emotion, whereas Eudaimonia is a much more comprehensive state of being. Happiness is something that a person might create or lose at any moment, while Eudaimonia takes long effort to build and has staying power. Happiness, for some people, can be gotten through simple pleasures, like eating, or by immoral means, like stealing. Whereas Eudaimonia includes being a good person, and doesn’t come from pleasure, although, hopefully, it does lead to pleasure.
Measured by pleasure
Can be achieved by immoral means
Connected with luck
|State of being|
Measured by excellence
Can only be achieved by living a moral life
Connected with effort
III. Quotes about Eudaimonia
“The ultimate end of human acts is Eudaimonia, happiness in the sense of living well, which all men desire; all acts are but different means chosen to arrive at it.” (Hannah Arendt)
Hannah Arendt was a 20th-century philosopher heavily influenced by Aristotle. In this quote, she interprets one of the more controversial points of Aristotle’s moral philosophy. Aristotle argues that all human actions are aimed at Eudaimonia, or at achieving the good life. But some people have a faulty conception of what Eudaimonia means — for example, they may think that a good life means enjoying wealth and pleasure regardless of the consequences for others. Aristotle argues that this is how animals live, and so therefore, someone who conceives of Eudaimonia in such a way is basically no better than a dog. Yet many people do pursue pleasure instead of a moral life; does Aristotle really mean to say that such people are less than fully human? Are they?
“Eudaimonia is commonly translated as happiness, but I believe a more accurate translation would be fittingness: how well your actions match your gifts, match who you are.” (Derrick Jansen)
Derrick Jansen is an environmentalist, poet, and non-fiction author. This quote puts together Aristotle with modern ideas of self-realization and individuality. Aristotle would agree with the quote, but would probably add that there’s more to Eudaimonia than just who you are; Eudaimonia is also about fulfilling the gifts that we all share as human beings, in particular the gifts that enable us to reason, speak, form communities, learn, and pass on knowledge and traditions to others.
IV. The History and Importance of Eudaimonia
The ancient Greek philosophers were pretty much obsessed with the idea of a good life. Their whole way of life was organized around ideas about what makes a human life “good” or “noble” or “worthwhile.” While others pursued commerce, politics, or war, the philosophers tried to figure out why these things mattered. Each philosophical school had its own answers, but Aristotle’s was one of the most influential. His philosophy was successful in part because it showed the unity of all these pursuits: a merchant, a politician, and a soldier were all, Aristotle argued, doing more or less the same thing–chasing some kind of Eudaimonia.
Aristotle’s philosophy was also flexible; it wasn’t a one-size-fits-all ranking of different pursuits (e.g. philosophers are better than warriors, who are better than farmers, which was Plato’s view). Instead, Aristotle argued that the important question isn’t what you do, but how you do it: even if warriors were generally held in higher regard than farmers, an excellent farmer who dedicated himself to growing the best crops possible was still better than an arrogant selfish warrior.
In recent years, Aristotle’s ideas have gained new appeal to people, especially through the positive psychology movement. Positive psychology tries to identify the root causes of happiness, and research in this area has led many psychologists to conclude that Eudaimonia is a valuable tool for achieving long-term contentment and peace of mind. Some research shows that the greatest source of happiness is flow, or the experience we get when we are doing something challenging that we’re really good at, whatever that may be; it could be writing, playing music, teaching, cooking or even just talking with friends.
Positive psychologists argue that flow also results from pursuing a purpose in life, and so we can maximize our satisfaction in life by practicing those things we seem born to do. Ideally, they say, we should try to make a career out of them, but if that doesn’t make sense for whatever reason, you should still pursue your purpose outside of work.
V. Eudaimonia in Popular Culture
The main character in Office Space is unhappy in his job, but Aristotle would say that it’s not a question of happiness so much as a question of Eudaimonia. Peter lacks purpose in life and doesn’t excel at anything worthwhile. As a result, he is not leading a life worthy of his human nature. When Peter finally relaxes and stops worrying about what his bosses will think, he develops greater purpose and Eudaimonia (although with some pretty alarming results!)
In the original Sims game, the characters had a happiness meter that could be filled by fulfilling their needs — food, rest, fun, socializing, etc. In later versions of the game, however, things got a little more complicated. Starting with The Sims 2, it was no longer enough to keep your Sims happy: they also had aspirations to pursue. Some Sims want to pursue knowledge while others want successful careers, and still others want to raise large prosperous families. When the aspiration meter is filled, you could say your Sim is experiencing Eudaimonia.